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Jacques Herzog: Message from below

Jacques Herzog recalls his first visit to the Tate Modern Tanks and explains how their sinister and dark rawness still shapes and inspires the museum

We first visited the Tanks in 1994 on a tour of the former power station with Nick Serota and his team. The dark, sinister industrial world we encountered was very exciting, yet it also had a romantic side to it, a special flavour. Ever since, we’ve seen the Tanks as the one area we could keep as original as possible, compared with the other parts of the museum that needed to be far more refined and become classical galleries. This was not only our vision and dream, but that of Serota and the curators.

The Tate Modern expansion has allowed us to revisit the Tanks, and Tate’s aim for this new project has been to fuse the extension with the power station’s past and history, so that, like the original conversion, it would always refer back to the building as it once was: rough and industrial. This sense of rawness and immediacy holds a huge fascination for us all, and in many ways is in opposition to the existing galleries. Architecturally, the Tanks resemble a space ship, but also have the feel of a bunker, or cave, as they are underground and sculpted from concrete.

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They have many different associations and are certainly not what you would expect in the traditional museum. Therefore, our approach should not be seen as a fashion trend, or an alternative to the ‘white cube’, but instead as something that was essential to our very first experience of the old power station.

Then there is a second consideration in our thinking as architects – which is perhaps even the first – that the spaces are a moment of structural force beneath the ground, a direct physical expression that forms the foundation of the forthcoming extension. Whatever comes on top – the tower of the expansion project – will be rooted in this history. Whatever we see in the future above ground will have grown out of this other world beneath, and wound its way upwards. The Tanks should not be viewed as an annexe, but as the roots of something to come.

They are not just an addition to what exists, or a decorative feature, but something fundamental to Tate’s vision. The spaces they provide may at the moment seem to be a hybrid between a white cube and a black box, but if they are considered within the entire complex of Tate Modern, then they complete the variety of display areas, both old and new, and are unique, unlike those in any other museum in the world.

As such, we hope they give more freedom and a sense of possibility for innovation to artists and curators. In terms of artworks, we imagine them to be used in many different ways. For performance and film they’re perhaps less unusual settings, although still unique. But imagine a classical painting hanging in the round raw concrete; that would also be amazing. We trust that art can be tested in different areas within the expanded Tate Modern – from classical light galleries, the white cube and more abstract spaces, to this kind of polygonal form, where you are aware you are underground and the viewer is provided with different contexts and experiences.

We, as architects, keep returning to art because we’re fascinated by what it can be, and by the innovation it can bring to our lives and understanding of society, particularly in dealing with issues of perception and awareness. This form of democratic museum is a strong basis for how our society should work, in terms of its openness to the audience and to art; not in conserving and conforming to traditional values, but in testing them and experimenting and discussing art publicly.

Making all this accessible to as many people as possible, not just an elite, also links to ideas of learning, an element that features strongly in the new expansion. In the case of Tate, which attracts the largest crowds anywhere in the world for contemporary and modern art, it is not just a vital platform for London, but for everyone. All in all, galleries and museums can play a vital role in questioning systems within art and society at large and offer alternative models, at once establishing a social space for the dissemination of ideas.

Jacques Herzog established architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron with Pierre de Meuron in 1978. The Tanks form part of the Tate Modern Project

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